Hate to break it to you, but your team is full of under-performers
If you're a leader in an organization that is going through a lot of change or scaling quickly, chances are that every single member of your team is likely performing at 80% or less of their true capacity.
In the case of rapid change or rapid scale, it is probably more like 50%.
Because there is so much change, people are often a little, or a lot, lost. That lost-ness usually leads to wasted energy and time.
There is honestly nothing I hate more than seeing smart people waste their time.
Work whiplash — where your momentum was going at a great pace and in a clear direction and then you either slammed in to a wall or got quickly jerked in a new direction — is one of the worst feelings as an employee, in my opinion. It is demotivating and demoralizing. And it happens all the time in companies that are going through rapid change. The context around the person is changing so fast that it takes a lot of proactive management to help folks stay connected and ensure that everyone is swimming in the same direction.
As a manager or leader, helping people not be lost — not waste time and energy -- is one of the most important things to spend time on. It ultimately means revisiting, regularly, the basics of management. Do the people that work for you know what their role is? Do they know what's expected of them in that role? Do they know how they fit in to the larger context? Do they know how to move work forward?
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Here are 6 things to watch out for as a manger or a CEO that tend to cause work whiplash as well as so much wasted time and energy inside of companies:
1) People don’t actually know what their job is. How can this be? You hired them for a job description. It had a lot of bullets. Well, yes, but in the time between when you posted the job description and the day they got hired, the whole company changed. Sometimes it changed more than once.
Role clarity is one of the first things I look at when I start to work with a company or a team. Do the manager and the members of the team all use the same language to describe their jobs? I’ll save you the time: they almost never do. And just to be clear, I don’t mean do they know what their title is, I mean do they know what they are singularly responsible for and does it align with what you need them to own and drive.
Role clarity is the FIRST place to look if you want to build a high functioning team. There are two sides to the coin: what they think their job is and what you need their job to be. You need those two sides to be the same. In order to build a high functioning team, people need to know what they own, what they’re responsible for, how it aligns to the main business objectives, and how it relates to the 2-3 other key people they work with. In a perfect world, each role has a clear single number they can crush.
Over half the time in scaling companies, I find that even high performers aren’t entirely sure what their job is. High performers might just be slightly better at figuring it out on their own than everybody else.
Just for a fun twist, whenever I do this work, I often find that roles are defined too small and that people are capable of owning more. I regularly find that even if someone is confident about what their role is, it actually doesn’t align with what the business needs them to do — so the two sides of the coin aren’t aligned.
Do this work and do it now. Ensure that every member of your team knows exactly what their role is and how it aligns to what the business needs. Make sure that you and they use the same language, and for good measure, ensure that the people around them — the ones they work with most frequently -- use the same language too.
Oh, also, given how fast the company is changing, you need to make sure you check in on this every 3-6 months.
2) They don’t know what you expect of them in that role.
The second question that I ask at when trying to ensure that a team is fully utilized is “Do people know what is expected of them in their role?” Do they know what the 2-3 most important things are that they need to deliver? Do they know how to deliver them?
Regularly when a manager is frustrated with the performance of someone on their team, it turns out that the person didn't know what was expected of them or didn't feel they had permission to lead. As an example, they may have the title of “head of events” but does that mean they recommend or even decide which events we're going to or do you (the manager) decide and they execute? Or worse, are you telling them they have the authority to make decisions and move things forward but then second guessing everything they do? How can they know what's expected of them if you are saying one thing and doing another?
Expectations and role clarity are cousins but they are not the same. Role clarity is basically the “what” in a job — do you know what you are directly responsible for and does it align with what others think you own? — and expectations are closer to the “how” — are you leading, supporting, deciding, driving, executing? What does your manager expect of you versus what are you doing?
Clear expectation setting is all about clear delegation. Does the person know
What they own
At what level they own it
Who needs to participate, approve, etc
And on what timeline?
Usually if something isn't working or someone is missing expectations, it's actually because one of those is unclear.
As a manager if there are parts of your team where you regularly feel frustrated or like things are moving too slowly, ask yourself if people really know what you expect of them. Did you make your expectations clear including what they own, the timeline, the quality? Sometimes it turns out you just delegated a little too loosely — e.g., they know they own the project but didn't understand the urgency. But often, it turns out that what you expect of them and what they think they should be doing are just different, and you need to re-set. It is always fine to take some 1:1 time to say, “Just to revisit, I'm expecting XX and YY from you and I'm also expecting you to ask for support if you need it. Does that match up with what you understand?”
If they agree to the expectations, then it gives you permission to come back and say, for example, “ok then why are things moving so slowly, etc? How can I help unblock you?”
Also it is normal for expectations to evolve. Everyone is learning together. The most important thing is to acknowledge that the expectations have changed openly. Ot is fine for expectations to change and evolve, but only if you communicate about it with the person.
3) People don’t know who they’re supposed to be working with.
One of the hardest things to figure out as a company scales is who you need to work with to get something done effectively. When you’re small, the answer is usually easy and quick — 1-2 people. As you grow or as change occurs, it’s really hard as an individual to keep track of the changing dynamics and the additional people that need to be included or informed of things. So much work whiplash is created when a team is racing forward to accomplish something and they're constantly getting pestered with “you need to loop in so-and-so” or “you should have run that by me earlier”.
The reason why organizations often end up implementing a framework like RAPID or RACI is due to people running off to implement things and forgetting to loop people that can help or provide valuable guidance in. There are bad versions of these frameworks — overdone versions that basically say everyone should be involved and make everything veeeeeery slow — and great versions — frameworks that make it very clear who the single responsible person is and the few people they need in order to execute on their project quickly and effectively.
As a manager, part of delegating a project or initiative effectively — setting it up for speed and success — is making it clear who the few people are who should participate and also who needs to approve. Make it clear from the beginning, and if something changes, let them know as soon as possible. You can also help them defend against the “everyone feels like they should be involved in everything” syndrome that tends to creep in as organizations get bigger. Help them triage the difference between the folks who really need to be involved in order to make good decisions on behalf of the organization and... everybody else.
3a) You delegated the same thing to two people.
I see this a frustrating amount inside growing companies with inexperienced managers or new CEOs. Everyone is anxious about some project or priority and instead of clearly delegating it to one responsible person, delineating who they need to work with in order to get it done, laying out a clear timeline, etc., managers spread the anxiety around. They either intentionally or inadvertently send multiple people off thinking they're responsible for solving the problem only to eventually find out that another team is working on it too. Nothing is more frustrating or a bigger waste of time than having to re-trace your steps or integrate your work or abandon it entirely.
Clear delegation (clear expectation setting) is one of the most important skills in management. You don't have to be perfect at it but if something isn't working, you need to see it as an opportunity to re-clarify your expectations — to re-delegate to the same person or change the plan — but not create duplicative work or teams.
4) People don’t know how or when to get a decision made.
There is nothing that feels better than knowing what your role is, whats expected of you, and what decisions you can make without asking your boss. Feeling like you have autonomy and authority is something people crave.
On the flip side, nothing feels worse than if you know something needs to happen but you feel like you don't have the power to make the decision or like you keep hitting brick walls when you try to get the decision made. Similarly, nothing burns great people out faster than if they've busted their butt getting someone to the finish line and then at the end, their boss “un-does” all their work. Work whiplash! Hate it!
Part of setting clear expectations as a CEO or manager is being clear about how you want to be involved and who has the authority to make decisions.
And in general, organizations are significantly healthier if people know how and where decisions get made. They don't have to like or agree with every decision but they should understand how and why decisions are made. They need to know where to go when something needs to be decided and what they have the authority to decide.
Every CEO and manager are comfortable with different levels of decision-making delegation and solve this problem in a different way. One thing is universally true — teams move the fastest when you can trust their judgement and push decision making down as much as possible.
5) Something changed around them and no one told them
This happens A LOT in growing companies or in moments of change. It creates the same kind of work whiplash that I mentioned above. Imagine that you're racing forward on a project, feel like you are 80% there, ask your manager for help with something, and come to find out that the project no longer matters because of a board meeting or a leadership meeting decision that everyone forgot to tell you about. It usually leaves people feeling unimportant and like no one values their time or energy.
As a leader, one of the most important questions to ask yourself when you make a decision, change your mind, get feedback that changes your thinking, etc., is “who needs to know about this?”
Change is inevitable; whiplash is not. The earlier you bring in people who are affected by the change, the easier it is for them to adapt.
6) No one has ever given them that feedback.
Most people travel through life and get relatively little TRUE feedback, particularly as you get more senior. It happens pretty often that you meet a mid-level or senior person who is relatively effective but they have 1-2 major handicaps — two behaviors or tendencies that stop them from being their best self. There are extreme cases — “wow that person is an amazing executor but everyone hates working with them” — and less extreme cases — “gosh that person could move 3x as fast if they got better at communicating with their team".
In any case, one of the greatest gifts you can give someone is to try to make them better — to help them be their best self at work. Often that means telling them something hard but important — “here is the thing that is holding you back.”
If you're not naturally good at this as a manger, go through your team one by one and ask yourself “what's one thing that is holding that person back from being even more effective working with me? What's one thing that's holding them back with their team?” If you don't know the answer, start observing and asking questions of the people they work with. It can be as simple as “what is the single best and worst thing about working with this person?”
Help people grow. You'll be amazed at how few managers actually help people become better. If you get good at it, you are already one of the best managers in the world.
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If you are in a rapidly scaling and/or rapidly changing company, revisit the management basics often.
Do people know what their roles are?
Do they know what is expected of them in that role?
Do they know who they need to work with to get stuff done?
Does each major initiative have one single person responsible for getting it across the finish line?
Do they know how to get a decision made?
If something changed, do the people who are affected know about that change?
Have you given feedback to each of your high performers about the one thing that is holding them back?
As the world changes around you and your team, your job as a manager is to try to keep everyone swimming in the same direction. It is not something you do once and then finish. It’s something you iterate on, tweak, and constantly strive for.